Malawi’s new reality: Fall Armyworm is here to stay – Part 2

Part II: Managing pests and threats in the longer term

This blog series examines the current state of the Fall Armyworm crisis, which has spread across nearly the whole of Africa. In Part I, we took a closer look at the damage, especially on the maize crop, in Malawi as well as the immediate response. Here, we consider medium and longer-term strategies for dealing with FAW and other potential pests and threats to Malawi’s food security.

Since Fall Armyworm (FAW) came to prominence in Malawi in December of 2016, the Government of Malawi (GoM), with support from development partners, has been working hard to develop strategies to effectively control this pest. A National Response Plan was drawn up in early 2017 which spelled out immediate-term as well as medium to long-term activities. Much of the response to controlling FAW focused on creating awareness among farmers, extension workers, and supporting agencies, and on the procurement and distribution of pesticides. The chemical pesticides certainly have a place in the immediate response, but are only one component of the government’s plan for large-scale adoption of an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) approach. Indeed, many have questioned whether the environmental and health risks and costs of chemical control of FAW outweigh the potential benefits.

First, applying pesticides can be dangerous—for people and the environment. In an ideal world, only trained extension workers and lead farmers would be spraying, according to Dr. George Phiri, an entomologist by training and Assistant Representative for Programme at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Despite considerable donor and GoM spending on personal protective clothing and equipment, sprayers, and safe pesticide use training, Phiri says one can still observe farmers applying the pesticides with their bare hands using water bottles and other makeshift spraying devices, and without any supervision. Cases are also encountered in which the farmers do not even know the names of the pesticides they are applying—nor the precautions they should take to protect themselves from the potential dangers of using them.

Next, the efficacy of chemical control varies considerably. While there are some reports of FAW developing resistance to Cypermethrin, the initial pesticide the GoM distributed to control the pest, these reports are unsubstantiated thus far and may have to do with spraying techniques. The timing and method of application (i.e. targeted versus non-targeted spraying), dilution rates, and the stage of its life cycle at which the pest is sprayed all play important roles in determining the effectiveness of pesticides. For example, at advanced stages of development, the worms can actually hole up in parts of the maize plant, where they are protected from the pesticides by the frass they produce.

Lastly, pesticides are expensive and are not cost-effective if improperly used. Farmers who do use chemicals — whether purchased from agrodealers, or distributed for free or on subsidized terms by GoM and NGOs — receive varying levels of information on how to apply them, leaving plenty of room for human error and thus, exposure.

According to Dimitri Giannakis of Farmers World, one of the largest suppliers of farm inputs in Malawi, most formal and informal agrodealers are not specifically trained in helping farmers make better choices. Many have basic knowledge of prices, and which chemicals are usually applied to which crop, but in most cases agrodealers do not have enough information to differentiate between the effectiveness of the chemicals. Even formal retailers have challenges in making sure that farmers get the right information – a realization which led Farmers World to create their Farm Services Unit. The FSU helps formal agrodealers in their network gain the technical agricultural knowledge they need to properly advise farmers, and to help them weigh the costs and benefits of spraying. Caitlin Shaw, coordinator of the Unit, says, “For example, failure to alternate chemicals can be extremely counterproductive and expensive for a smallholder. FAW (and pest management in general) is an area where the importance of training alongside purchasing is even higher.” Farmers World now has an extension agent available at each point of sale to help mitigate risk at the farmer level, but more work is needed nationally.

The bottom line is, spraying alone is not enough to tackle aggressive pests like FAW. Dr. Jean-Pierre Busogoro, an agricultural scientist with the European Union Delegation in Malawi, says that “in the longer term, an IPM strategy  is affordable and thus, accessible for the majority of farmers and can help promote consistent agricultural messaging.” Busogoro favors working through farmer field schools (FFS) as a participatory extension approach that involves farmers in both technology development and assessment as well as ‘’learning-by-doing”. He believes that while the initial infrastructure and inputs for FFS may cost more up front, they may prove more sustainable in the longer-term as communities are empowered and easily accessible, already organized into groups. FFS can bring lasting impact to farming communities by allowing farmers to develop their own solutions adapted to local conditions. They can also be used to promote an IPM strategy that helps prevent widespread pest damage by promoting healthier, diversified, and well managed crops in an adequate environment where the soil fertility and conservation of natural enemies are assured from the start.

Dr. Phiri explains that adoption of good agronomic practices, including timely planting, that is, before build-up of FAW populations, is an integral part of dealing with FAW in the long term. He stresses the need to promote vigorous early plant growth coupled with early detection and treatment of FAW, as the older a crop gets beyond the vegetative stages, the lower the chances of successful control of the pest. Early planting or early maturing varieties can help. As mentioned in Part I of this blog, intercropping and more diverse cropping systems can also help slow the spread of FAW and other pests and diseases.

According to the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), an intercropping technique that has proven particularly successful in controlling FAW is the“push-pull” cropping approach. Originally developed for controlling the cereal stemborer, another pervasive pest, push-pull involves intercropping a cereal crop (like maize) with insect-repellent legumes in the Desmodium genus. Such intercropping repels or ‘pushes’ pests away from the primary cereal crop. The cereal crop is simultaneously intercropped with an appealing forage plant, like Napier grass, which serves as an enticing border that ‘pulls’ the pests away from the cereal crop.

Push pull technology in the field. (Photo credit: Pickett et al. 2014)

Learning from neighboring countries’ control methods for the stemborer serves as an important reminder that while FAW represents a new and particularly tricky challenge to Malawi’s farmers, the country is no stranger to pests. For solutions, we can also look to the successful local control of African armyworm (from the same genus Spodoptera as FAW). Since 2014, the GoM has worked with FAO to build capacity at the community-level to monitor and predict outbreaks of African armyworm in hotspots. The system is considered effective and can serve as a model for FAW monitoring and early warning.

While we know that FAW is here to stay, Malawi can rise to the challenge by developing a balanced and comprehensive IPM approach which couples near-term solutions, such as building farmer knowledge of the pest, capacity to scout in their own fields and ability to make local decisions on how to effectively deal with the pest, with longer-term strategies. These include early planting, intercropping, biological control, use of botanical pesticides, reduced use of highly hazardous pesticides, and utilizing FFS to disseminate good practices to critical masses of farmers  – all to sustainably protect crops from FAW and other pests or disease’s damage. The Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development (MoAIWD) also plans research on various other solutions, such as understanding the impacts of conservation agriculture on FAW population dynamics and damage, and the development of local capacity for FAW biological control using effective parasitoids and predators, although they currently lack the necessary funds to do so.

Some have suggested the use of genetically modified (GM) crops for the control of FAW, but reports of pests evolving resistance to GM insect-resistant maize (maize modified with the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis and commonly referred to as “Bt”) have been found with FAW in the Americas and with the maize stemborer in South Africa – suggesting that this may not be a long-term solution for pest control. Furthermore, the high cost of GM seed puts it out of reach for many smallholders in Africa south of Sahara; however, promoting the IPM approach can lead to an easily affordable system for the majority of farmers while addressing not only FAW but a diversity of pests and diseases.

An approach which works with farmers to find affordable long-term strategies can effectively be adopted to manage FAW, while simultaneously making the rest of the agricultural landscape more resilient. Sometimes, less is more. The simpler and more accessible a solution is, the more likely it is to be taken up and sustained in the long-term, long after external funds and subsidies cease. As Busogoro suggests, FAW — and other pests and diseases— can be tackled if we focus on, “simple technologies, adapted and accessible for the majority of farmers.”

IFPRI Malawi wishes to thank Dr. George Phiri of FAO, Dr. Albert Changaya of MoAIWD, and Dr. Jean-Pierre Busogoro of EU, for their expert contributions to this blog series. Thank you also to Dimitri Giannakis and Caitlin Shaw of Farmers World, for providing an agrodealer perspective in Part 2.